We Traded In Buying 'Stuff' For Experiences, And It Was The Best Decision Ever

by Elizabeth Broadbent
Originally Published: 
Christopher Broadbent

For Christmas, my kids each got one big present. One received a trip to the reptile zoo about two hours away. Another got a trip to a small aquarium about an hour from our house. The third got five tickets to the local cat cafe (lest you think he got ripped off, he’s really obsessed with cats).

For our family as a whole, we waited for our state park’s absolutely killer Black Friday deal and booked three (!!!) different weekends and one week’s stay at a cabin in the mountains at a price that would make your jaw drop (my mother actually even bought one of them as our Christmas present). I got my husband our spring break trip. He got me stuff, because he likes to get me stuff, and he still hasn’t completely lost the mindset the rest of us have fully embraced — which is basically that, as a family, we’re much more into doing stuff than buying stuff.

He’s a public school teacher. I’m a writer. We aren’t exactly rolling in money over here. So when it comes down to the choice between doing or having, we’ve found that doing is so much better. Doing doesn’t clutter up our house. Doing stuff makes memories that last, rather than things that break or get scattered all over the house. Doing stuff brings us closer together, rather than dividing us up to play with our various toys (me reading a book, my husband messing with fishing equipment, the kids playing with their plastic doodads).

This doesn’t have to mean that we go on fabulous vacations. We saved our money, and instead of buying things, we bought a pass to all our state parks. Almost every weekend, we go to a different one to go hiking and exploring. Recently, we went to a nearby park where they’d dropped the water levels in the lake, exposing lake bed filled with mussel shells. My kids had a blast picking through and finding the most beautiful ones, and then wonder of wonders, discovered a softshell tortoise shell and skull. We took the skull home with us. They won’t forget looking for mussel shells with Daddy, Mama, and Nana; they won’t forget the weird, twisted tree-trunks once sunk underwater, the strange finds: an anchor, old glass bottles, a forgotten tackle box.

Hell, we don’t even have to leave the house to be doing instead of buying. We shelled out a little bit of money for flint and steel for the kids and taught them how to build fires. Now they build fires in the fire pit (without adult help but under our supervision) and we spend time together roasting marshmallows and hot dogs in our backyard.

My husband sets up the binoculars and we stargaze together, which only takes a cheap pair of binoculars and a stand. The kids love doing it; its value as something to do rather than something to buy and be consumed goes on and on and brings us together for quality (no screen) bonding time.

The same is true for our bikes. We ride them together, and while the five-year-old can’t go far, we’d rather spend the money on something we can use doing things together as a family. The older boys zip ahead. My husband and I take a more leisurely pace as I try not to kill myself (they say you never forget to ride how to ride a bike, and this is a vicious lie).

We’re not total minimalists. My bike has a cute little basket; we build the fire in a nice fire pit when we could have dug a hole in the damn ground and lined it with rocks. Camping, which we love to do as a family, means buying stuff too — even stuff you don’t really need, like hammocks. But it’s money we try to spend toward the goal of doing rather than accumulating. We are spending time together, and our kids are learning and growing and making memories, versus using up all of our resources on new, shiny stuff.

Because there is nothing more wonderful, more perfect, then watching your kid doing things. My middle son is obsessed with salamanders, and his greatest joy in this world is not playing with the bearded dragon we bought him, but wading into a stream and turning over rocks in search of the genus desmognathus. We were so proud when our five-year-old climbed his first (slowly sloping, very easy) mountain without whining or needing to be carried. The look on my nine-year-old’s face when he set his first fire alone, from kindling to triangle of wood to flint and steel was something I’ll never forget. He won’t forget it either.

The toys will will eventually go to Goodwill or fade into the dustbin of memory. But my husband and I sitting on an ancient metamorphic rock in front of a sixty foot waterfall? I’ll keep that in my head until the day I die. When we have the choice between buying and doing, we try to pick doing every time. That won’t change because the rewards are too great.

We’ve made some marvelous memories our kids will never forget. We’ve bonded as a family. We can say things like, “Remember that time Daddy caught all that trout and then ate it all and we didn’t get any?” Or “Remember when the five-year-old caught the 3 ½ pound citation-level rainbow trout as long as his leg on a flimsy ninja turtle rod…” Or “Remember when the German Shepherd decided to visit the family on the next beach, and nonchalantly trotted across a five-foot-off-the-ground fallen long to do it?”

Remember? Remember? Remember?

Doing brings us together. Doing cements us as a family. Doing builds bonds that last.

In the end, it’s worth more than stuff for us.

So we pick it. Because we value each other more than we value the things we accumulate. We’ve got enough of those as it is.

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